Whether or not it will ever again earn the title, a history of electoral success and longevity in power throughout the 20th Century gave the Liberal Party of Canada the nickname “Natural Governing Party”.
For most of the past hundred years or so, the Conservatives, in their various permutations, sat in the opposition benches like kids looking through the window of a candy store, drooling over the chocolate bars – or maybe… cabinet posts – on the other side.
On those rare occasions when conservatives did win power, they often did so in dramatic fashion, by forging coalitions of otherwise dissimilar voters and politicians united in populist anger against the perceived arrogance, elitism and corruption of the Liberal Party.
In fact, Conservatives – well, Progressive Conservatives, actually – won the two biggest electoral victories in Canadian history this way. John Diefenbaker’s 1958 victory and Brian Mulroney’s 1984 win remain the only historical instances of a party winning more than 200 seats in the House of Commons.
In both those examples, the party governed for a few years before the unlikely coalitions that brought it to power collapsed spectacularly, handing that power back to the Natural Governing Liberal Party for many more years.
Mulroney’s coalition of western populists, Quebec nationalists and Ontario fiscal conservatives collapsed so thoroughly in 1993 that the party itself split into three separate entities, its western supporters migrating to the Reform Party and its Quebec contingent following Lucien Bouchard into the Bloc Québécois, leaving a rump caucus of two Progressive Conservative MPs in the House of Commons.
When Stephen Harper came back into politics a few years ago, after some time as a lobbyist, he had a few long-term goals for the conservative movement in this country:
1) Reunite conservatives into a single party.
2) Win power.
3) Turn the Conservatives into the “Natural Governing Party” and the Liberals into the jealous kids with their noses up against the candy store window.
He accomplished the first two goals, the record will show. The third one, though, is still a work in progress.
For a while, Harper seemed to be doing well on the reverse-the-historical-trend front. The discipline of power – and the discipline meted out by the Prime Minister’s Office – seemed to be keeping Conservative MPs in check, the more controversial views of some of their members kept far from public earshot. In winning and keeping power, the Harper Conservatives made headway with traditionally Liberal ethnic groups, with Quebec nationalists, and with voters in many formerly solid Liberal Ontario ridings.
And even though Harper has now failed in three attempts to win a majority government, his party has increased its vote share in each of the past three federal elections, and has faced a Liberal opposition that has looked nothing like a Natural Governing Party for several years.
But is the Tory tide beginning to turn?
The Liberal Party, under new leadership since its ill-fated attempt to form a coalition government with the NDP late last year, are up in the polls and looking more disciplined and united than they have in years.
On the other hand, Conservative Party fault lines – which may have always been there, but hidden from public scrutiny – have become more and more apparent in recent weeks:
* The party’s social conservative wing, which Stephen Harper has tried to keep far from view, showed itself to still be a force when a couple of MPs – including the science minister – made public statements questioning evolution.
* The fault line between conservative principles and crass politics was exposed a bit more fully recently when Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff, made some candidm public statements about how the party formulated election policies like the GST cut.
* Rare leaks from the Conservative caucus revealed a party split on the PC / Reform line over the legacy and treatment of former Prime Minister Mulroney.
* The global economic crisis has exposed another fault line, as the Conservative Party swallowed its fiscal philosophies in order to stimulate its way into multi-year deficits.
* Harper made great headway in Quebec, which enabled him to take power, but the cultural fault line there may now be too big for the Tories to breach.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Canadian conservative movement was bitterly divided only a few short years ago. Harper’s historical legacy may well be tied to how successfully he manages to keep the party united – and on the better side of the candy store window – over the next while.